ST. LOUIS — It is difficult to describe the frustrating, helpless feeling that hits when a basketball team can't make shots and the season's big goal slowly slips away.
Teams that play Northern Iowa know that feeling. The Panthers methodically squeezed the life out of Wichita State's offense with a 67-52 win on Sunday in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament title game at the Scottrade Center.
The second-seeded Shockers, playing in their first championship since 1987, missed a chance to grab an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament. They will likely settle for the NIT, although both coaches spoke of the Shockers as an NCAA-quality team.
"The country saw today why Wichita State is in that picture for an at-large bid," UNI coach Ben Jacobson said. "I think you saw two tournament teams out there."
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That case was made in the game's first 30 minutes. As the second half wore on, the top-seeded Panthers (28-4) did what they always do — get a hand in every shooter's face and position their body in the way of every movement. The Shockers (25-9), playing their third tough game in three days, ran out of ways to beat that defense.
"They're not super athletic, but they're always in the right position," WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. "They're a very, very, very physical team and strong. They're going to give somebody in the NCAA Tournament an L."
That left the Shockers talking about why shots they normally seem to make bounced short off the rim. "You've got to take advantage of the good looks that you get against them, and we didn't do it," WSU guard Clevin Hannah said.
Over and over again.
"We just couldn't finish, couldn't put the ball in the basket," WSU center Garrett Stutz said. "That will hurt you when you're playing a good team."
The Panthers specialize in imposing long scoring droughts. They held their first two tournament opponents to 40 points each. Drake went 20 minutes, 52 seconds without a basket. Bradley got off easy with a 9:10 drought.
WSU checked in at 12:10 without a basket in the second half, and that decided the game. The Panthers trailed 39-33 when Stutz made a three with 16:24 to play in the game. The Panthers led 56-45 when Hannah made a three with 4:14 to play. Mixed in was a 16-1 run that pulled UNI from a one-point deficit to a 56-42 lead.
"It's always defense, defense, defense in our practices," UNI forward Jake Koch said. "We preach it all the time. It all seems to be working well for us this year."
WSU made 6 of 26 shots in the second half, 3 of 12 from three-point range. The Panthers walled off the lane and forced WSU to shoot jump shots. The Shockers missed 11 straight shots of all variety. Graham Hatch missed a layup after a lob pass. Stutz came up short on a jumper. J.T. Durley missed a reverse layup contested by 7-footer Jordan Eglseder. Demetric Williams and Hannah missed three-pointers.
"We settled for jump shots," Stutz said. "We didn't continue to be as aggressive as we were earlier in the game."
The Panthers, starting three seniors who own two regular-season and two tournament titles, also stuck to their offensive plan. They outscored WSU 17-9 at the line, committed a mere five turnovers and made 10 of 20 threes.
Guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe, the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, led UNI with 24 points, 12 at the line. Koch — Jake, not MVC Player of the Year Adam — scored 13 off the bench. He made 5 of 7 shots, all three of his three-pointers, after declining to take a shot in 27 minutes in the two previous games.
Big brother Adam, held without a point, enjoyed the show. Jake Koch also stole an inbounds pass in the second half, one of 16 WSU turnovers.
"We've got confidence in him to make shots and make plays," Adam Koch said. "It was great to see him today play with confidence."
Hannah led WSU with 12 points. Stutz added 11. Durley ended a frustrating, foul-prone stay in St. Louis with five points, failing to score in double figures in any game. Toure Murry scored six after totaling 30 in the first two games.
"We had some guys that had poor shooting nights, and also had some guys that made some bad decisions," Marshall said. "We lost our composure to a degree as a young team the first time in this situation."
The first time, yes. Nobody who watched WSU in St. Louis expects it to be the last.